Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Unavoidable Ethical Dilemmas for Non-Profits

By Kirk O. Hanson and Peter Gielniak

Non-profit organizations face their own set of ethical challenges and must resolve them based on their organizational values. Here are three scenarios that staff may confront:

Scenario No. 1
Your organization depends heavily on volunteers for many tasks and projects.  One volunteer, an attorney, has performed services previously as a volunteer. This time you receive a bill for the services.  When you ask, the attorney says, "Oh, I can't afford to not bill for my time anymore.  It's the economy, you know."  How would you handle this bill?

Scenario No. 2
Your staff is shopping for a new office supply vendor, and your executive director asks you to compare prices.  One of your major donors owns and operates ABC, an office supply company, and has expressed interest in your business.  You discover that ABC is considerably more expensive than the others included in your price comparison report. Later you learn that ABC is the new vendor.  How would you respond?

Scenario No. 3
You and several co-workers attend a conference. They have made similar trips for the organization, but this your first. You keep your expenses very low by using the hotel airport shuttle ($12 round trip), economizing on meals and avoiding any unnecessary expenses. Part of your job involves comparing receipts with expense reports, and when you review your co-workers' receipts you see that they each used a taxi to and from the airport (around $30 one way), ordered room service breakfast, consumed several mini-bar items, sent clothes to the hotel laundry and bought tickets to a concert. What, if anything, do you say to your supervisor?

These case studies were developed by Kirk O. Hanson, executive director, and attorney Peter Gielniak to illustrate unavoidable ethical dilemmas in fundraising.  They appeared originally in "Advancing Philanthropy" (March/April 2012)


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